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Adventures of a cat whis.., p.12
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       Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, p.12

           Daniel Pinkwater
 
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  "What about just taking us off this miserable plane?" I asked the Wolluf. "Couldn't you do that?"

  "What? You want to go home already?" the Wolluf asked.

  "Well, yes! Anyway, before they hang us."

  "Oh, I hardly think they hang people for stealing a golden gooser," the Wolluf said.

  "Okay, before they whip us or pinch us, then. Besides, we did not steal the golden gooser."

  "Hence they are going to give you a trial!" the Wolluf said. "Where you can prove your innocence. You don't want to leave before your trial."

  "Of course not! What were we thinking?" I said. "Who would not want to stay in a cell in a jail run by a sadistic monster, and then be tried for a crime and probably subjected to some barbaric punishment?"

  "Exactly!" the Wolluf said. "I will go now and see if I can arrange some kind of defense for you."

  "I was being sarcastic," I said. But the Wolluf did not hear me. He was already at the end of the corridor, and by way of going out the door.

  At the door, the Wolluf stopped, turned, and called to us, "Moon Stoats's daughter, Queenie, will be along later with something for you to eat. Bye!"

  "Wait!" we shouted. "Get us out of here!" But the Wolluf was gone.

  "He is not taking this seriously," I said.

  "Which means that maybe it is not serious," Molly said.

  "Or it means that the Wolluf is crazy, like so many people we meet," I said.

  We looked around our cell. It was made of big, heavy, rough boards of wood, and the door was iron bars. There were two wooden benches, which we supposed were our beds. There was a bucket in the corner.

  "Nice," Molly said.

  "Deluxe," I said.

  When it got to be night, Queenie showed up. She did not look anything like Moon Stoats. She looked more or less like an idiot. She brought us some disgusting gruel.

  "Here is some disgusting gruel," she said. She sounded more or less like an idiot.

  "Are you cruel and horrible like your father?" Molly asked.

  "No, I am nice. If it were up to me I would help you to escape. You should eat your gruel—you'll need your strength for the trial and ghastly punishments."

  "Tell us about the trial," I said. "You can leave out the ghastly punishments."

  "Basically, you're doomed," Queenie said. "Do you know who your judge will be?"

  "Some judge?"

  "Baas Kwaadwillig," Queenie said.

  "Isn't he supposed to be bad?"

  "He is a monster and a tyrant. He runs everything around here. My father admires him, if that tells you anything. You may be sure he will condemn you and sentence you to something horrible."

  "But we're innocent. We didn't do anything."

  "That makes no difference to Baas Kwaadwillig," Queenie said. "You know what you should do? You should assassinate him."

  "What?"

  "Do him in. Knock him off. Put an end to him. Bash him on the head with something heavy. Everyone will thank you for it."

  "What are you talking about? You want us to kill somebody?"

  "If you don't he will sentence you to an eternity in some icky pit. You don't want that, do you?"

  "Not much, but we are not killing anybody."

  "Just think it over. It's the right thing to do,"

  Queenie said. "I have to go now. My father wants his disgusting gruel. I'll bring you a dagger or something just before the trial."

  "When is the trial?"

  "Midnight. You'll be in some terrible place by dawn. Your best chance is to kill Kwaadwillig." Queenie left.

  "She's the weirdest one yet," Molly said.

  "I wonder what's next," I said.

  CHAPTER 52

  Waiting for Midnight

  Sitting in a dark cell gets one to thinking.

  "You know, I really want to sort out this thing between Elizabeth Van Vreemdeling and myself," I said.

  "You're still convinced that you are two different people?" Molly asked.

  "I'm thinking that maybe I am Elizabeth, but not entirely. I mean, maybe part of me is her, but not all of me. It's more as though I have to find her so I can do something for her. I think it could be Elizabeth who's behind all the stuff that happens to us and not Chicken Nancy and the Wolluf making up a scenario and making us act it out."

  "If I were already a wise woman like Chicken Nancy, I would just explain it to you," Molly said.

  "Already a wise woman? Are you going to be one?"

  "Yes, I think so. I think I will stay with Chicken Nancy and get her to teach me the wise woman trade."

  "You already have talent for it," I said. "Knowing things, and reading minds and all. By the way, what is your opinion of our present situation? Are we really in trouble or not?"

  "I think we are in for a few surprises," Molly said.

  The three little kids turned up in our cell—which was almost a surprise.

  "What did you do with the magic bag?" the three little kids said in unison. They were floating about midway between floor and ceiling.

  "Why did you give us a magic bag with a stolen golden gooser in it?" I asked them.

  "You opened the magic bag?" the three little kids said all together. "We told you not to open the magic bag!"

  "Well, the birdheads made us open the magic bag, and now we are arrested and awaiting trial," Molly said.

  "We told you if you opened the magic bag you'd get in trouble," the three little kids said.

  "Who are you, anyway, you little nitwits?" Molly asked. "And what do we need to do to get you out of our lives?"

  "We are your friends," the three annoying little kids said. "We are your only friends. You are in serious trouble, and you need your friends."

  "The Wolluf is our friend," I said.

  "The Wolluf left town," the three little kids said. "He went to see his auntie in Wappingers Falls."

  Molly and I looked at each other. Could these little nuisances be telling the truth?

  "We are angelic and spiritual beings who watch over you," the three little kids said. "We never lie."

  Gloom.

  "Take heart, weird girl and pussycat," the three little kids said.

  "I'm a girl too," I said.

  "We have gifts for you," the three little kids said. "To you, Molly, we give the elf fear gong. Strike it when something frightening happens. To you, pussycat-girl, we give a trouble fez. Wear it, because you are in trouble."

  I put on the trouble fez, which was a kind of hat, and Molly hit the elf fear gong. The three little kids vanished.

  "These things seem to work," Molly said.

  CHAPTER 53

  The Mystic Brothers of the Mystic Brotherhood

  Queenie turned up. "They're coming," she said. "I couldn't find a dagger, but here's a big fork to kill Baas Kwaadwillig with."

  "Get away from us, maniac," I said.

  Molly hit the elf fear gong.

  A bunch of men appeared in the corridor outside our cell. With them was Moon Stoats, jingling his keys. The men were all wearing golden robes and pussycat masks.

  "Unlock the cell, gaoler," one of the men said. "It is time to take them to the Mystic Temple."

  "They're to be hanged, aren't they?" Moon Stoats asked eagerly.

  "Unlock the cell."

  CHAPTER 54

  In the Mystic Temple

  The guys in the pussycat masks led us out of the gaol. Under the streetlights there was a crowd waiting, and a band wearing top hats and led by a man with an open umbrella. The head pussycat-mask guy gave a signal to the open-umbrella guy, the open-umbrella guy raised his umbrella, and the musicians raised their horns and clarinets and saxophones and began playing a hot number.

  With the band before us, bouncing and strutting, the leader waving his umbrella, and the crowd cheering, we started off with pussycat-mask men on all sides of us. It was a good band, and Molly and I couldn't help but march along with a bounce in our step. The pussycat-mask men were waving to the crowd, and pretty soon we
were doing it too. For a second I saw the girl who looked exactly like me, and then I lost sight of her. The guys in the band were swinging and weaving, dancing and turning, and we could see the umbrella bobbing up and down. Molly and I tried some fancy stepping, and the people in the crowd whistled and shouted.

  It was a parade, a swinging parade. We swung around the corner and up another street, then up the steps and through the doors of the Temple of the Mystic Brotherhood.

  The head pussycat-mask man said to us, "You are in the Mystic Temple. Behave nicely. I will take you to your seats in the Great Hall. There you will wait quietly. Baas Kwaadwillig will be here soon."

  "We heard he was as bad as could be," I said.

  "No, he is as good as can be," the Mystic Brother said. "Our order is devoted to justice and harmony, and he is our leader. If you are girls of goodwill and courage, no harm will come to you and you will receive the blessings of enlightenment."

  "Is that a fact?" Molly asked.

  "It is a fact," the pussycat-face said. "All will become clear, and you will understand everything."

  "That will be a nice change," Molly said.

  The seats he conducted us to were in a large room, like an auditorium, which I recognized as the inside of the Panopticon Theatre, which the Wolluf had told us it would later become.

  "Speaking of the Wolluf," Molly said, reading my mind, "can you believe he took off and left us here on our own so he could visit his auntie?"

  "I can't believe he has an auntie," I said.

  There was a stage at the front of the auditorium, and behind it, where the screen would be, was a gigantic painting, a mural. I found it very interesting. There were some familiar things in it—Spookhuizen, for example, and the beech trees around it, and one very big beech tree, bigger than all the others. And there were flying fuzzballs, like the ones we had seen. Some of the fuzzballs looked like the fuzzballs I remembered, and some of them had cat faces in them, some had whole cats in them, and some of them were cats. There were also cats all around the painting, some of them drinking from saucers of milk. And that was everything in the mural—except a picture of me! I was standing next to the extra-large beech tree.

  "Do you see that?" I asked Molly.

  "Sure do."

  "Do you understand it?"

  "Almost."

  "I don't think we're here to be tried for stealing a golden gooser," I said.

  "Neither do I," Molly said.

  CHAPTER 55

  De Boom Is De Sleutel

  The Mystic Brothers filed in to the auditorium and sat down all around us. They were more or less human, most of them. They had taken off their pussycat masks and were now wearing hats that looked like pineapples, and carrying sprigs of catnip. I recognized the voice of the one who had been the head pussycat-mask man. He stood on the stage, raised his arms, and said, "De boom is de sleutel!"

  All the Mystic Brothers in the seats raised their arms and said, "De boom is de sleutel!"

  "What does that mean?" I whispered to Molly.

  "It's Dwergish, or something close to Dwergish," Molly said. "I think it means, 'the tree is the key.'"

  "Be silent!" the guy on the stage said. "Let us enter a state of contemplative calm. Let our minds be still. Let us close our eyes and put our hands on our knees, in the ancient posture taught to our first master by the priests of Egypt. Compose yourselves, Brothers of the Mystic Temple. The master comes!"

  The Mystic Brothers put their hands on their knees and sat very quietly with their eyes closed. We sat quietly too, but we did not close our eyes. We saw the head pussycat-mask man leave the stage, and after a while Baas Kwaadwillig appeared. He had a fancier gold robe, and a bigger pineapple hat than the others. He looked as scary as the time we saw him in the street, but not as evil.

  "De boom is de sleutel!" he said with arms raised, and the brothers raised their arms and responded, "De boom is de sleutel!"

  "Mystic Brothers!" Baas Kwaadwillig said. "Our order is as old as the tree in Eden, as old as Yggdrasil, the tree of the world, as old as the Grizzly Giant in the redwood forest of California, as old as the Bristlecone Pine. For thousands of years we have stood for understanding and goodness, and the keeping of great secrets. Time and again we have preserved wisdom in dark times when the forces of evil have attempted to extinguish the light and to extirpate our teachings, root and branch."

  "I get it," Molly whispered to me. "They're tree worshipers."

  "Silence!" Baas Kwaadwillig boomed. "Tonight is a singular night in our history, for we have new candidates for membership in the order—and for the first time one of the initiates is a little girl and the other is a pussycat."

  "I'm a girl too," I said.

  "A little girl and another girl who is similar to a pussycat," Baas Kwaadwillig said. "Let the candidates come forward!"

  "He means us," I whispered to Molly.

  The Mystic Brothers sitting beside us stood up so we could make our way across the row of seats to the aisle.

  "Well, let's go forward," Molly said. We went forward and stood before the stage.

  "If you succeed in your initiation, you will be the first female Brothers of the Mystic Temple," Baas Kwaadwillig said. "And I suppose that would make you Sisters of the Mystic Temple. Of course, if you fail your initiation, you will die. Do you accept this?"

  "Do we have a choice?" I asked.

  "No."

  "Then we accept," I said.

  "Can you promise to be kind to animals, to change your socks and underwear every day, or as often as is practicable, and to never eat cold beet borscht with sour cream, except in the case of starvation? Think well before you answer, for these promises are inviolable."

  "You have a problem with any of those?" Molly whispered to me.

  "None," I whispered.

  "We promise," we both said.

  "De boom is de sleutel," Baas Kwaadwillig said. "We now entrust you with the Sacred Snooker Stick, made of ancient wood. Guard it well." He handed us a long, skinny piece of wood resembling a pool cue. The Mystic Brothers applauded.

  "Is that it? Are we initiated?" Molly asked.

  "Not yet," Baas Kwaadwillig said. "First you must undergo the trials."

  "Oh yes, the trial," I said. "About the golden gooser. Well, we can explain—"

  "Silence!" Baas Kwaadwillig bellowed. "This has nothing to do with a golden gooser. You must undergo two dangerous and frightening trials—the Trial of Hot, and the Trial of Wet. Only if you survive them will you be members of our order. Naturally, if you do not survive them..."

  "Death," Molly and I said.

  "Death," Baas Kwaadwillig said.

  CHAPTER 56

  Sub-sub-sub-sub-sub

  Two of the Mystic Brothers conducted us up the little flight of stairs at the side of the stage. It turned out there was a door in the mural, right in the middle of the very big tree. The two brothers and Baas Kwaadwillig pushed us through and followed us. We were in a little room hung with ropes, and there was a big basket in the middle.

  "The trials will take place in the sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-basement, beneath the temple," Baas Kwaadwillig said. "They are very scary trials, and once you have begun them no one can help you. Do you understand this?"

  We said we did.

  "I see you have the elf fear gong, and a trouble fez," Baas Kwaadwillig said. "And you have the Sacred Snooker Stick. These objects will protect you if your hearts are pure. Are you ready to begin your trials?"

  We said we were.

  "Step into the basket."

  We stepped into the basket. It was quite large enough for both of us.

  "They are in the basket," the two brothers said.

  "Lower away," Baas Kwaadwillig said.

  We felt something slide underneath us. It was a trapdoor opening. The basket rocked a little, and we began to sink into darkness. The last thing we saw was the brothers paying out rope. They were lowering us.

  We automatically sat down to steady the baske
t. The dim light that came from the open trapdoor soon faded, and looking upward we could see the trapdoor as a gray square getting smaller and dimmer—and then we were in darkness. This darkness was of the blackest black, and then it got blacker. It was impossible to tell how fast we were descending, or even that we were moving at all. I couldn't remember ever seeing it so dark.

  "I don't suppose you have a match," I asked Molly.

  "All I have is this elf fear gong," Molly said. "And I'm getting ready to ring it."

  It was impossible to tell how far we had been lowered, or how fast we were going, or even how much time had passed. At one point I reached out to see if I could feel a wall or anything, but all I could feel was nothing. And all I could hear was silence.

  For some reason, I kept thinking about the girl who looked exactly like me, the one I had seen in the street while we were being taken here and there. Also for no reason I knew of, I thought it was important that I had seen her. I was going to mention it to Molly, but she spoke first.

  "The Trial of Hot, and the Trial of Wet," she said.

  "Would that be fire and water, do you think?"

  "So, what are you thinking? We're going to be burned and drowned?"

  "Well, something like that. Anyway, that's what it sounds like."

  "Remind me why we agreed to this."

  "Because he said if we didn't it would mean death."

  "Oh, yes—that."

  CHAPTER 57

  Thump

  The basket hit bottom with a thump. It was every bit as dark as it had been on the way down. We just sat there for a while, not speaking.

  When we did speak, there was an echo. I could feel that we were in an enormous open space—I sensed it was much bigger than the whole Mystic Temple. Except for our voices, and the echo, it was completely silent.

  "We're in a mine or something," I said.

  "How are we going to get out of here?" Molly asked.

  "You don't think they lowered us down here and are just going to leave us to die, do you?" I asked.

 
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